Mini 2008: Comeback of the Year

Posted by Iannucci | 12/29/2008 | 4 comments »
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Earlier this evening your humble host was perusing the 2008 Oreo Awards when suddenly a petrifying thought occurred: Holy Cannoli, there were still Mini Awards that had yet to be handed out! Gadzooks, what kind of crappy award is this? I mean, this series is taking longer to complete than the first OJ Simpson trial.

And with but three days left in 2008 there are still three awards remaining to be handed out. Already winners have been announced for Rookie of the Year, Achievement in Televised Reporting, and Moment of the Year, but we still have Most Improved Driver, Race of the Year and Driver of the Year to be awarded. So without further ado we now embark on a fast and furious three-day odyssey to wrap-up the longest cliffhanger since the span between "Rocky IV" and "Rocky Balboa". (Come on, that "Rocky V" mess never EVER happened.)

That brings us to today's category: Most Improved Driver. I know this category is going to possibly tweak some of the former Champ Car Fanatics out there, but really, getting tweaked is what they do beast, right? Anyhow, because I followed the CCWS with only slightly more enthusiasm then competitive eating, I have no idea if anyone from that series suddenly went from being a horrendous metal bender to a super duper respectable driver. Mea culpa, but this category like all others will be based only on performance in IRL-sanctioned events.

That doesn't mean me and the family wouldn't invite Justin Wilson over for dinner though. At any rate, here are the nominees.

Danica Patrick - The tantrum thing is rather petty unless you can win a few races here and there, but this year she finally took the checkers. I don't care if she led less laps than Milka Duno this year, Danica! won. Finally. Ah ah ah - shut up with that "fuel strategy" crap. A win is a win is a win, and after being a flash in the pan at Indy in '05 it's been a long road back for the GoDaddy Girl.

Ryan Hunter-Reay - After posting results in his first dozen or so races for Rahal Letterman Racing that weren't substantially different than predecessor Jeff Simmons, "Babe" hit New York and struck gold. You might pooh-pooh his win at Watkins Glen as aided a brain freeze by the Iceman, you might even pooh-pooh the use of the term "pooh-pooh", but you can't deny the arrival of an IndyCar driver when there's an 80-foot billboard of said gentleman in NYC. He's HUGE.

Marco Andretti - His win at Infineon two years ago was "spin-aided" and last year he flipped over twice and seemed to take a step back in the IndyCar series, but if you were paying attention '08 was actually a much improved year for the young Jedi. You do know that Marco led 8 different races this year, tying him for third among all drivers, right? You also know he led 330 laps, which is fourth among all drivers, right? Oh you don't? Hater.

Buddy Lazier - Call me sentimental. The addition of circuits with right turns seemed to lead to the end of the road for former IRL stalwart Buddy Lazier since Buddy hasn't had a Top 10 finish since '05 or a win since *gulp* '01. But there is one track where he's looked solid and that track is IMS. This year it looked bleak for Hemelgarn Johnson team on Bump Day with Buddy needing to find 2 MPH to qualify, but they pulled the wick, trimmed it out and let Buddy be Buddy, and the '96 winner not only qualified but managed to get that magnificent purple pig up to 17th. Full disclosure: I almost wept a little there just typing that.

And the winner is...

Ryan Briscoe - As recently as May there were still folks who thought Ryan Briscoe was in over his head, that Roger Penske had gone mental in picking him, and that the Briscoe Inferno would be downsized before the end of the season. Sure, the guy had a nice finish at The Glen in '06 and was solid at Indy in '07, but everything else was forgettable. Everything but the bursting into flames deal at Chicagoland in '05.

Briscoe started the 2008 season at Homestead with a wreck, followed it up with another wreck at St Pete, and then after a couple of low Top 10s he infamously took out Danica Patrick at Indy in one of the two most-watched clips of Danica's year (the other of course involving a towel).

But immediately after the accident Team Penske told Ryan to just "stay in the car". Mostly that was to avoid the wrath of a 100 lb woman, but it also symbolized the team's commitment to Ryan. So he stayed in the car, and what followed was not only an immediate win at Milwaukee, but victories at Mid-Ohio and Surfer's Paradise, as well as podium finishes at Texas, Infineon and perhaps most redeeming at Chicagoland.

Congratulations to Ryan, who this year went from being the driver known largely for surviving a ball of fire to simply being, in the immortal words of Marv Albert, "on fire!"


  1. The SpeedGeek // December 30, 2008 8:17 AM  

    Good pick. I thought that all of the hysterical "Briscoe's on the hot seat!" stuff after Indy was a tad premature myself, so I was pretty thrilled to see the turnaround in the second half of the year. I'd even go so far as to say that Briscoe's a top-3 contender for the '09 championship.

    And by the way, the ex-ChampCar guys all wound up around about where I thought they'd be in the final standings (with Justin maybe a little lower than I figured), and I don't think any of them other than maybe Moraes really made much upward progress during the season. So, I'd say you were right to leave them out of consideration on this one. Nice work.

  2. pressdog // December 30, 2008 11:26 AM  

    Justin Wilson, I think, deserved some strong consideration. Given what he had to work with, and the challenges the team faced. I do have to snark a bit and say it's SHOCKING to have someone get a ride with Penske and then, SHAZAM, win a few races. Who'd a saw that coming?

  3. The SpeedGeek // December 30, 2008 1:59 PM  

    Well, JW, in my mind at least, was already a top-flight sort of driver, so that would rule him out for "Improved" status. Also, other than Mid-Ohio and Belle Isle, I don't think he really contended on a week-to-week basis, and he still did wind up out of the top-10 in points.

    Even though I already rated Briscoe as a B to B+ level driver, the fact that he was able to go from a trainwrecky 19th in the points after Indy to 5th (and gaining on Kanaan and Wheldon) at the end of the season ought to win him this one. Snark taken, but even given that he was driving one of the 4 best cars on the grid, that's a pretty solid comeback.

  4. Sean // December 30, 2008 2:21 PM  

    Briscoe wasn't as bad as he appeared in 2005. Ganassi's cars that year were horrible because Toyota had ditched the IRL by then and no longer cared. Scott Dixon scored one top five that year (albeit a win), and now look. Briscoe did have a couple good runs on road courses, and would have on ovals if the equipment had been capable, and on most of the ovals the IRL runs on, car is much more of a deciding factor than driver (Indy, Milwaukee, Richmond, and maybe Iowa excepted). The 2004-2005 Ganassi era was his worst since he hired Alex Zanardi...

    I think I'd pick RHR. Rahal hadn't won in four years and it didn't look like Hunter-Reay was going to have a ride in AOW again after getting fired in '05 from Rocketsports. He ran a lot better than some of his finishes showed. Although he had good luck at Watkins Glen, he had bad luck at Texas for example. He also managed to beat one of the Big Three team cars with a single-car team, which is impressive.